First, I don’t know exactly what is or is not happening at the school. But, isn’t this one possible counter-hypothesis to the assertions in the story: This school is populated with a lot of people — on all sides of the issue of whether or not to unionize — who care deeply about kids, care deeply about the school and its mission, and are going through this process for the first time? In other words, there is an assumption that this is Wal-Mart or some other entity with a track record of and skill set for fighting union drives when in fact it may just be a case of people fumbling through a new and complicated situation.
Second, there seems to be a general assumption that the union has the leverage here. But doesn’t KIPP actually have it? Given the dynamics (this is about public relations more than substance since we’re talking about one school) it seems to me that it will be far more damaging for the teachers’ unions if KIPP walks away saying that this won’t work for them than if the union says KIPP won’t agree to their terms. After all, in the court of public opinion KIPP’s brand is a lot more powerful than the teachers’ union these days. That’s why at the end of the day I’d bet we see a deal. But also why regardless of how it turns people will want to ascribe enormous importance to it even if it really is essentially a one-off. We’ll know a lot more after this does or doesn’t play out at dozens of schools.
Update: Matt Ladner calls me out as a teachers’ union apologist. Perhaps. But I think the specter Matt describes isn’t likely here because of this leverage question. Having looked closely at this issue from a couple of perspectives I’d say that the first generation contracts will not be onerous at all. It’s the second and third generation effects that are unknown and important for charter schools to think through. Yet there is risk there for the teachers’ unions, too. Namely dilution. The more reformist agreements they sign onto and the more common the portfolio approach to contracts becomes then the harder it gets to defend a lot of the work rules that exist in many places. And, it’s possible to envision a scenario where they become sort of like AAA. People sign up for services they like but are largely ignorant of the organization’s public policy positions and advocacy. There is some of that going on now as it is. That could mean several things, good and bad, for education politics.
In terms of this situation specifically, one reader also writes to point out that, “The other issue is that the union faces a tremendous risk here. This is a great school. If it is anything less than great over time, the teachers’ union will be blamed in a high-profile way for ruining yet another school. The point being that there is a public relations incentive for them to offer up a deal that is favorable to the management of a great school.”